in Video Games

Review: ‘Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number’ Is More of the Same, In Increasingly Violent Ways

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Nearly three years after the release of the highly praised indie game Hotline Miami, we finally make our return to the eponymous city’s neon-soaked bloodbaths, this time with a whole new slew of mass murdering sociopaths to control. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is set in the early 1990s — my childhood! — just after the events of the first game where Jacket neatly wiped out much of Miami’s Russian mob.

The developers at Dennaton Games have expressed a desire to make this a different game than the first, delving deeper into the series’ meaning: “Hotline Miami 2 is about expectations. All the characters in the game have their own expectations, their own motivations and dreams and what they want out of their part in the game… [we’re] trying to do something different, trying to make people feel other emotions, not guilty and freaked out by all the gore, like feeling uncomfortable. We want to try to add other emotions, like sadness.” In some ways I think they managed to pull it off — the brand spankin’ new level editor adds another aspect of re-playability, there are now way more plot lines to follow, and a tweak to the mask and weapons system really changes up game play and killing styles from scene to scene —  but a lot of it is the same ol’ Hotline Miami, with an extra helping of hyper-violence, somewhat thinly drawn characters, and a story that’s even more convoluted. And you know what? I am totally fine with that.

Hotline Miami sucked you in with its atmosphere and awesome music, numbing you to the game’s early-on unexplained violence before smacking you with some hard-hitting introspection: Do you realize what it is you’re doing? Why are you listening to these voices telling you to kill people that, as far as you know, haven’t done anything wrong? Had you assumed they did do something wrong — does that mean you’re justified in murdering them in droves? Are you a bloodthirsty psychopath who’s been waiting for an opportunity like this, or are you a victim yourself who’s been brainwashed into enjoying it so much?

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number tries taking that a step further with many new perspectives to take on. The Fans, one of the playable factions in the game, are an obvious stand-in for the players — or at least, the players as viewed through the lens of mainstream media, in their worst “violent video games lead to violent people” nightmares. Consisting of Corey, Alex, Ash, Tony, and Mark, The Fans take it upon themselves to go out and continue these murders, hoping to attract the attentions of 50 Blessings — though some of them are a lot more gung-ho about it than others.

We have a mini-prequel in the form of Jake, an intensely anti-Russian American supremacist who follows the orders from his 50 Blessings phone calls in a cobra mask. Much like Biker in Hotline Miami, Jake begins to question his employers. In present day, The Detective is working a little vigilante justice of his own.

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Lines of reality are becoming blurred for The Pig Butcher, an actor who’s slowly losing his mind as fear that he’s becoming washed up bleeds into his character in his new film “Midnight Animal,” a slasher flick based on Jacket’s killing spree in Hotline Miami. Pig Butcher’s scenes can get a little surreal, as you’re never really sure whether these events are all happening in his head, in the confines of the film he’s acting in, or in real life.

Meanwhile The Writer is working on a book about “the masked maniac,” and his research brings him into some truly awful situations. Of everyone, Writer seems to have the weakest stomach for violence — perhaps a commendable thing in real life, but in the scope of the game it’s treated like a handicap. Kill too many people and Evan’s vision — and your screen — turns red. Walking back through a level of his is almost freakier than the usual ones full of corpses and pools of blood, as his victims are often on the floor and writhing through what I assume are their caved-in skulls.

“Maybe you ought to get out before it’s too late… You really enjoy hurting other people, don’t you?”
“It’s just a film…”
“‘Just a film’ huh? That’s one way to look at it.”

Hotline Miami‘s story was told through chapters; Hotline Miami 2‘s is told through scenes flavored with intermittent white noise, blue screens, and rewinding, all of which accentuates the movie motif throughout the game. The “it’s just a film” scene above could easily be tweaked to “it’s just a video game,” which, of course, is the point.

Is this level of violence in all of us, just waiting to be accessed? Are we feeding that urge by playing these games and watching these films, or are we exorcising it? If the running theme of Hotline Miami was “Do you like hurting other people?”, the theme for Hotline Miami 2 is something along the lines of “Yes. What are you gonna do about it? What am gonna do?” Wrong Number is just as much a game about repercussions as it is a game about meaning and expectations.

It’s very easy to distance yourself from the violence in these sorts of kill-em-up games, especially in the Hotline Miami series where everything is so pixelated and lurid and fast. The neon backdrop lends a sense of surrealism; the top-down viewpoint makes it easier to stomach that you basically just squeezed the eyeballs out of someone’s skull Oberyn Martell-style.  The instant gratification of a score flashing big and bright after you kill someone means you focus on the the points more than the pool of blood from the body you just left twitching in the hallway. Once you get into the grind of run – hit – die – press R to restart, run – hit – die – press R to restart, it’s hard not to get desensitized.

Hotline_Miami_2_coverWrong Number gives us more time and space to muse on these issues than its predecessor, though, with larger levels leading to enemies that are often times more spaced out and erratic with their motions; pausing the action to get your bearings happens more often, making some scenes a hassle to get through. There’s a lot of somewhat confusing story to follow, and jumping around from character to character makes keeping track of what’s what and staying invested in it harder. The layout of many of the levels places a higher favor on guns — adding another layer of difficulty for players like me who got through Hotline Miami by holding a pipe and waiting impatiently around the corner for the baddie to walk close enough. (In my defense: I’m really good at bludgeoning, I have shit aim with guns, and pool cues, unlike pistols, don’t run out of ammo.)

Hotline Miami 2 is already significantly more difficult than Hotline Miami, by the way — likely in response to those players who thought the first game was too easy (who are you people? Teach me your ways). Much like with the first game, it takes some planning and a whole lot of dying to figure out the right way to kill everyone without getting killed yourself. Rules will change on you. Just because an enemy was patrolling one hallway in one play through doesn’t mean he’ll stay there. My finger cramps, I don’t dodge the bullet in time, and there I am two seconds away from rage quitting, spitting expletives that would make a sailor cross themselves… and yet somehow I’m having the time of my life.

Of course, we can’t talk Hotline Miami without talking about the truly majestic soundtrack. The music in Wrong Number is just as excellent if not better than that of the first, chock full of thrumming electronic that perfectly sets the scene (oh look, film motifs again!) for such a dark game. It’s the kind of soundtrack that will inevitably pull me back into Wrong Number again after the aforementioned rage quit, if only to experience this kind of perfection to the fullest.

I don’t know that the devs were entirely successful in their plans to “do something different” here, but what they they did do is create an entertaining sequel to a fantastic game. Despite the iffiness of the character development, story pacing, and level design, at the heart of it Hotline Miami 2 is just more Hotline Miami, in ever-increasingly violent ways.

And that is a great, great thing.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is available now on PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and PS Vita.